In 1946, Jackie Robinson was the first African American baseball player to play International League baseball. The next year he moved up to the Major League team Brooklyn Dodgers. These breakthroughs were engineered by Branch Rickey (played by Harrison Ford), the general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers at the time, who signed Robinson. The film recounts both the desegregation of baseball and the relationship between Robinson and Rickey.
Rickey had decided it was time to break the color barrier. At the beginning of 42 he alludes to the number of new paying fans who would come to the games to watch an integrated team, but later he shares a more principled motivation. Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) signs on, agreeing to keep his temper in check when the inevitable hard times come.
Director Brian Helgeland obviously wants us to like Robinson, and I did. The movie portrays him as an upright, courageous man, a good husband and father. But the movie’s biggest flaw may be its intense earnestness. Rather than showing young boys following Robinson and imitating his moves, leaving us to draw our own conclusions, the movie gives us those kinds of scenes plus a minor character whose sole purpose seems to be to point out what a hero Jackie is. This kind of condescension to the audience makes the movie feel stilted and self-important at times.
In spite of its flaws, 42 was exactly what I needed to see after the horrendous week that included bombings in Boston and Baghdad. Rather than worshiping at the altar of violence and revenge, the movie encourages the best in humanity. Rickey and Robinson were both Methodists, and the film does not ignore the underpinnings of faith that reportedly ran through their relationship.
Rickey’s advice is often directed by biblical wisdom. He advises a Christlike “turn the other cheek” resistance to racism. The tremendous courage and self-control required to do that garners more respect for Robinson than any verbal or physical outburst could have. Rickey warns him, “your enemy will be out in force, and you cannot meet him on his own low ground.”
We all face hatred, or the temptation to succumb to it, and we should all have as much grace in those moments as Mr. Robinson did in his baseball career. It’s good to see that his powerful life story won’t be relegated to the dustbin of history. (Warner Bros.)